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The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

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  • Noel Vera
    A creditable Chronicle Noel Vera C.S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, first of seven tales about the land of Narnia, finally gets the
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 12 3:07 PM
      A creditable "Chronicle"

      Noel Vera

      C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," first of seven
      tales about the land of Narnia, finally gets the digitally enhanced
      big-screen adaptation, and I've got mixed feelings about the
      results, not the least because the slim little novel--and the six
      that follow--carry so much emotional baggage. I read it way back
      when, not long after reading contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of
      the Rings" trilogy; I was so much more impressed with Tolkien's
      monumental fiction, what with its detailed world complete with
      several languages and a complex history; more, Tolkien's epic was
      clearly aimed at adults, while the Narnia books were as clearly
      written for children--I felt more of a sense of achievement
      finishing off the former than the latter.

      A strange thing happened through the years; my regard for Tolkien's
      three-volume tome (in some editions combined into a single ten-pound
      block) shrank, while that for Lewis' grew. Tolkien, I thought,
      created a world and thrust us into it with little preparation or
      apology; Lewis was careful to keep one foot constantly in our world,
      or at least the world of the Pevensie children (his putative
      heroes), and kept returning to that world as a constant reference, a
      way of reminding us just how fantastic (and yet relevant) the
      children's adventures are. Tolkien's narrative is relatively
      straightforward, the telling of a war in Middle Earth and the coming
      of the Age of Men; Lewis' stories (I thought) sprouted interesting
      branches, including a trip to the very edge of Narnia (unlike
      Tolkien's, which you can believe is a close parallel to our own,
      Lewis' is demonstrably flat), a telling of how Narnia began, and
      (most unsettling of all) how it would all end (Tolkien did write of
      the genesis of Middle Earth--not in "Lord of the Rings," but in "The
      Silmarillion," basically a lengthy story outline that he was never
      able to properly dramatize).

      Then there's the Christian subtext, which Tolkien hated--he felt it
      straitjacketed Lewis' imagination. Which some dislike for being too
      didactic and allegorical (the real hero of the stories, the lion
      Aslan, is a thinly veiled Christ symbol), while others praise for
      promoting the right values (or their idea of 'right' values,
      anyway). Lewis' intentions, apparently, were a bit more complex: he
      denies that the books are allegories (an allegorical Aslan, as
      essayist Adam Gopnik points out, would be a humble lamb or donkey,
      not a proud lion). The books themselves aren't merely Christian
      parables but, as Lewis biographer Alan Jones notes, a distillation
      of Lewis' considerable knowledge of Medieval and Renaissance
      literature; Greek, Roman and Celtic mythology; and personal

      Personally, I like the Christian subtext. Not because it reaffirms
      any values I happen to hold (as if I only go to movies or read books
      to reaffirm my values!), but because it's a strong element, one that
      Lewis passionately believed in (despite some doubts late in life),
      giving the books a unique flavor that in this more religiously
      conservative world feels, well, dangerous (I'd write more on that,
      but it's a whole other article). I also think he works in some of
      his best--and worst--ideas in the service of said element: morality
      and evil are a constant concern in the Narnia adventures, and some
      of the most dramatic moments-- a brother's betrayal, a faun's deceit-
      -arise from this concern; unfortunately, Aslan himself is about as
      ham handed a noble character as any I can think of in contemporary
      fantasy (Lucy Pevensie's childlike goodness is much more winning),
      and his victory over the forces of evil is about as surprising as
      sunrise. Lewis may deny that Aslan is allegorical, but you'd have a
      hard time arguing that to evangelists eager to exploit his books.

      Not reassuring was the fact that the production was partly financed
      by conservative billionaire (and Dubya supporter) Philip Anschutz,
      ostensibly in an effort to promote wholesome Christian
      entertainment; produced by a Disney trying to brown-nose the
      Christian right (the film is being hypocritically sold as
      secular 'family entertainment' and as an 'evangelical tool'); and
      directed by Andrew Adamson, whose filmography consists of two CGI
      animated features and a music video. All three probably have the
      noblest of intents but little or questionable storytelling talent,
      and the film's first few minutes bear me out; it opens with a
      terrifying glimpse of the wartime Blitz over London and the Pevensie
      children running for shelter--or at least it would have been
      terrifying if Adamson hadn't cut up the footage so much you could
      barely understand what's going on. The Blitz is a neat excuse to
      send the children into the countryside, to the professor's mansion
      and the magic wardrobe hidden inside one room (Lewis himself had
      helped shelter child refugees during the war), but Adamson's botched
      editing reveals a filmmaker with little confidence in the material
      or in his ability to hold the audience's interest (he seems to
      believe that more cuts=faster pacing, which is ridiculous). He
      further tarts it all up with anachronistically wisecracking dialogue
      ("Numbers do not win a battle" "No, but I bet it helps"), plenty of
      talking CGI animals, a near-death escape or action sequence every
      fifteen minutes, and for a climax your standard-issue battle between
      the forces of good and evil (Lewis spent at most a few pages on the
      final battle, preferring to focus on more important things). It's
      all, of course, been done before, nine hours' worth of adventuring
      hobbits for the past few years, and it's a desperate bid to cover up
      for the director's lack of a distinctive sensibility, a visual style
      good enough to bring Lewis' fantasy to vivid life.

      And yet, somehow, Adamson gets some things right--the initial sight
      of the lamppost topped with a gas flame, flickering in the middle of
      a snowy wood; the faun carrying an umbrella and parcels, a scarf
      wrapped round his neck; the final sequence, which on print I found
      bizarrely overextended (turns out Lewis had yet one last twist up
      his sleeve), onscreen is admirably and economically told.

      Best of all are the actors: Georgie Henley's beautifully unaffected
      performance as Lucy (the first Pevensie to enter Narnia); James
      McAvoy's equally simple performance as Tumnus, the faun that meets
      Lucy (their scenes together are a pas-de-deux of innocence and
      amiable duplicity); Skandar Keynes' Edmund Pevensie, which requires
      him to be monstrously, unflinchingly self-absorbed without being
      entirely repulsive; and Tilda Swinton, channeling Queen Elizabeth as
      a full-blown sociopath, playing perhaps the iciest queen in recent
      memory. It's with these performances--in between the tiresome action
      sequences and second-rate digital effects--that Lewis' classic
      fantasy comes to life; when at one point tragedy strikes, the actors
      with (presumably) the help of Adamson are able to evoke the
      heartfelt directness of Lewis' prose, speaking in the spare tones of
      children's literature (a directness the ostensibly more adult "Lord
      of the Rings" never manages to achieve). Not a great fantasy film,
      not the equal of Tim Burton's "Corpse Bride" or Hayao
      Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle," but better I think than Jackson's
      8,000 pound monkey movie.

      (First published in Businessworld, 1/6/06)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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